In 1987, at the height of the Cold War, a West German teenager flew a single-engine Cessna into the Soviet Union and landed in Red Square–and helped to change the world.
Mathias Rust’s flight.
In 1985, the Cold War seemed to be heating up. American President Ronald Reagan was making belligerent noises about the Soviet “Evil Empire”, and was expanding the American military to unprecedented levels, including the deployment of new medium-range nuclear missiles and new “neutron bomb” warheads in Europe. Most of the citizens of West Germany (which shared a long border with the Communist Bloc East Germany) saw Reagan as a provocative and aggressive cowboy, risking a global nuclear war of which, the Germans knew, they would be the first victims.
When Mikhail Gorbachev took over leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985 and began talking about Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (“restructuring”), many Europeans at last saw hope for a new relationship between the superpowers and a lessening of tensions. Those hopes were dashed in October 1986, however, when the joint US-USSR summit meeting in Iceland between Reagan and Gorbachev ended without any agreement to reduce or remove nuclear weapons in Europe.
Among those who watched the Reykjavik summit on TV was Mathias Rust, an idealistic 19-year-old living with his parents in Hamburg, West Germany, who, as he said later, “wanted to make a difference”. Working part-time as a data processor, Rust had earned himself a private pilot’s license and had around 50 hours of flight time. Now, he decided to put this to good use–he devised a plan to fly to Moscow in an attempt to “build an imaginary bridge” between the East and the West. Years later, he told the BBC, “I thought every human on this planet is responsible for some progress and I was looking for an opportunity to take my share in it.”
On May 13, 1987, Rust told his parents that he was making a flight around northern Europe, to log more hours towards his professional pilot’s license. At the local flight club, he rented a Cessna 172 light aircraft and took off. He had packed a motorcycle crash helmet with him, thinking it might help protect him if he was shot down over Russia. Over the next two weeks, Rust decided to practice his long-range navigation skills before attempting to reach Moscow–he flew to the Faroe Islands, then to Iceland and spent a week there (visiting the hotel where the failed Reykjavik summit had been held), then spent the next week in Bergen, Norway, and Helsinki, Finland.
On the morning of May 28, Rust took off from Helsinki and set his course for Sweden. After half an hour of flight and much hesitation, he finally made up his mind to go through with his plan, made a 170-degree turn, and headed towards the Soviet Union.
Rust knew he was taking a huge risk. The paranoid Soviet regime had the tightest border security in the world, as well as the planet’s largest air defense system. The entire border was covered by radar and fighter patrols. Just four years earlier, the Russians had shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 when it had inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace near Japan. Rust later told the BBC, “I had calculated at the time that my chances of survival were about 50-50.”
Rust’s plane was indeed picked up by Soviet defense radars as it crossed the border in Estonia. Forty-five minutes later, Rust saw a Soviet fighter jet flying next to him. “It passed me on my left side so close that I could see the two pilots sitting in the cockpit and I saw of course the red star of the wing of the aircraft.” But instead of shooting him down, Rust was relieved when the Soviet jet turned away and disappeared. He was unaware that the USSR had, in the aftermath of the KAL 007 shootdown, signed an international protocol agreeing not to attack any civilian aircraft in Soviet airspace, no matter where it was or how it had gotten there. There are also indications that the Soviet fighter pilot had misidentified Rust’s plane as a Russian-built Yak-12, a small high-wing sport plane that looks similar to a Cessna.
Rust was also inadvertently aided by the fact that there had just been a crash of a Russian civilian airplane in the area, and many radar operators mistook him for one of the Soviet search planes. Although he was tracked by several other Russian radar sites, each of them assumed, from his small size and low speed, that he was simply a Soviet civilian airplane. In Helsinki, meanwhile, air traffic controllers were shocked when Rust’s plane turned off-course and disappeared from their radar before they could contact him. A search plane was sent for him, and when they spotted an oil slick on the ocean, they believed Rust’s plane had gone down and sent a rescue boat. In reality, Rust would spend the next seven hours flying over 500 miles through the Soviet Union on a direct path to Moscow. By 7pm local time, Rust had reached his destination.
Rust’s plan had been to land his plane smack in the middle of Red Square, as a symbolic gesture, but when he flew over, he saw it was packed with people. Instead, he chose the nearest straight empty section of roadway, the four-lane bridge next to St Basil’s Cathedral which, unknown to him, had just happened to close down that morning for repairs. Rust landed, then jumped excitedly from his plane and shouted to the gathering crowd of onlookers, “I am here on a peace mission from Germany”–then, seeing that they didn’t understand, he added, “WestGermany, not East Germany.” It was only then that people realized that this inexperienced teen pilot had just flown from an “enemy” country through the thickest part of the Soviet air defense net to land in its heavily-defended capitol city. Rust was promptly arrested and taken away.
The Soviets interrogated him for hours, convinced that he must have had inside help. Rust continued to insist that he had acted on his own. Rust was later put on trial for “malicious hooliganism” and sentenced to four years in prison. He was eventually released by Gorbachev in 1988, as a gesture of international goodwill.
But the impact of Rust’s flight in the USSR was immediate. Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov, Air Defense Chief Alexander Koldunov, and almost 150 other senior military officials were fired–most of them to be replaced with pro-reform Gorbachev supporters. The Soviet military–and by extension the Soviet government–became a laughingstock. Gorbachev’s reforms, intended to help defuse popular actions, had the opposite effect–by 1990 the Soviet Government had lost all legitimacy, and by 1991 it was gone. The Cold War was over, helped in small part by an idealistic 19-year old in an airplane.